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In memoriam: Daniel Lewis, 92, longtime leader of the USC Thornton Symphony

The emeritus professor was the first member of the USC Thornton faculty to be named a University Professor

Daniel Lewis
Daniel Lewis is seen in this 1986 photograph. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Thornton archives)

Daniel Lewis, emeritus professor of the USC Thornton School of Music, longtime conductor of the USC Thornton Symphony and former director of Conducting Studies, has died. He was 92.

Lewis was raised in the San Diego area, and went on to study at California State University, San Diego and later at Claremont Graduate School and at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, courtesy of a Fulbright Scholarship.

Daniel Lewis

Daniel Lewis rehearses with the USC Thornton Symphony in the 1980s. (Photo/Courtesy of Joni Steshko)

Lewis conducted the orchestra and marching band at Helix High School in La Mesa, experiences that gave him a unique perspective on student musicians.

“He had done a lot of professional conducting, but he felt that his experience in public school teaching was a very big part of what made him effective and successful,” said Larry Livingston, current chair of the department of Conducting and dean of USC Thornton for nine of Lewis’ 25 years at USC. “He had all kinds of interesting ideas about conductors and music.”

Lewis garnered a reputation for bringing out the highest level of skill in his orchestras. He was music director of the Pasadena Symphony from 1971 to 1982, which received numerous professional accolades including five ASCAP awards for adventurous programming, raising that orchestra’s profile to a level rivaled locally only by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

On a good day, his USC orchestra could withstand comparison with almost any orchestra in academia and beyond.

Martin Bernheimer

“On a good day, his USC orchestra could withstand comparison with almost any orchestra in academia and beyond,” wrote critic Martin Bernheimer in the Los Angeles Times. “His students, moreover, have gone on to spread the Lewis gospel nationally.”

The first member of the USC Thornton faculty to be named a University Professor, Lewis led the USC Thornton Symphony in performances in Bovard Auditorium as well at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

As a highly-regarded teacher of conducting, Lewis taught at numerous workshops and masterclasses including the California Conducting Institute, League of American Orchestras, and the Conductors Guild, among others.

“I think the most important thing I relayed [to the students] is the attitude that I relayed to them of professionalism, of the responsibility to the music and to making music,” Lewis said during a 2006 Living History interview. “I was very, very hard on the rules and regulations. People did not miss rehearsals.”

Lewis is survived by five children, 15 grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, former wives Oneta Gwendolyn Belsha Lewis and Colleen Knapp, and longtime companion Joni Steshko.


MORE ON DANIEL LEWIS: An extended version of this story appears on the USC Thornton website.

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In memoriam: Daniel Lewis, 92, longtime leader of the USC Thornton Symphony

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